This month, China’s party-state media have been increasingly vocal in criticizing the “Clean Network” initiative introduced by the Trump administration, a global digital alliance of now almost 50 countries and 170 telecoms firms that aims to deter use of Chinese technologies Washington regards as insecure owing to their possible manipulation by the Chinese Communist Party. Introducing the program back in April, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said it was essential “to protect America’s critical telecommunications and technology infrastructure.”

China may now be feeling the pressure more keenly in the midst of an ongoing tech cold war with the US, the State Department reporting in a tweet late last week that 27 of 30 NATO allies, 31 of 37 OECD members, and 26 of 27 European Union member states have signed on to the initiative. Just two countries, Pakistan and Syria, have so far voiced support for China’s would-be competing proposal, the “Global Initiative on Data Security,” though Chinese government sources also claim to have secured pledges of support from Laos and Cambodia.  

Last week, CMP noted that the People’s Daily, the CCP’s flagship newspaper, had become more vocal in attacking the “Clean Network” initiative. In a commentary by Lu Chuanying, secretary-general and researcher at China’s Cyberspace International Governance Research Center, the paper accused the United States of conducting “network surveillance” in the name of cybersecurity. The US, said Lu, referencing the cyberpunk film franchise, is “the only real ‘Matrix.’”

“The Matrix” sci-fi action franchise, which recently wrapped up filming in Berlin for a fourth film due for release in December 2021, now appears to be a favored metaphor used by Chinese authorities and state media to criticize the US in the midst of a global rift over cybersecurity.

Over the weekend, the People’s Daily ran another commentary, this time under the “Zhong Sheng” (钟声) byline, reserved for important official statements on international affairs, called “Carrying Out Network Surveillance, Endangering Global Data Security” (实施网络监控,威胁全球数据安全). The commentary again sought to hammer home the argument that the US is the predominant threat to global cybersecurity even as it employs the rhetoric of security and openness.

“The ‘Matrix’ is proficient at network manipulation,” the People’s Daily commentary began, substituting the film’s title (which translated “Hacker Empire” in Chinese) for the US. “If it is allowed to break free from moral constraints and engage in network technology hegemony, continuously dispatching ‘rumor-bots’ to wander the world like ghosts, disrupting the cyber order, this world will inevitably face severe challenges.”

The commentary likens “certain US politicians” to “rumor-bots dispatched by the Matrix, which seek to “tirelessly discredit China on the 5G issue, suppressing specific Chinese companies, and trying to coerce other countries to choose sides in the name of building a so-called ‘Clean Network.’” These “rumor-bots,” it argues, cannot change the fact that “the US threatens global cybersecurity.”

For months, China and the US have been exchanging barbs over hacking and cybersecurity. In May, the US accused China of exploiting the pandemic, attempting to hack academic and private laboratories to steal COVID-19 vaccine research. This followed the release in March of a report from Qihoo, China’s largest cybersecurity firm, that accused the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of hacking attacks against Chinese companies and government agencies. After the report’s release, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs demanded a “clear explanation,” and spokesman Zhao Lijian (赵立坚) – a diplomat prone to provocative and colorful statements –  was the first to raise the “Hacker Empire” (“Matrix”) comparison. “The facts have shown that the United States is the world’s largest cyber attacker, a veritable ‘Matrix,’” said Zhao.

The state-run CGTN runs an English-language report in March 2020 quoting foreign ministry  spokesman Zhao Lijian accusing the US of being a “Hacker Empire,” the Chinese name for the film “The Matrix.”

Zhao Lijian repeated his “Matrix” language at a press conference in mid-August, after a journalist from China’s state media network, China Media Group (CMG), lobbed him a question about Pompeo’s trip to Central Europe:

According to reports, during his visit to Slovenia, Secretary of State Pompeo signed a joint declaration on 5G network security with the Slovenian Foreign Minister. Pompeo tweeted that this reflects ‘our common commitment to protecting the privacy and personal freedom of citizens.’ Pompeo also talked about jointly building a ‘Clean Network” in the Czech Republic. What is China’s comment?

Referring to programs such as Prism and the Equation group, and suggesting that the US carried out “around-the-clock surveillance of mobile phones and online computers,” Zhao Lijian responded: “These are obviously the exploits of the ‘Matrix’ [Hacker Empire]. The US is already covered in scars over cyber theft, but its secretary of state has the gall to propose a so-called ‘Clean network,’ which is absurd and ridiculous.”

The “Zhong Sheng” commentary in the People’s Daily marks the continued formalization of the Matrix/Hacker Empire accusation against the US in the context of the ongoing tech war, and also offers the latest example of how language from China’s increasingly combative foreign ministry — the so-called “wolf-warrior diplomats” — has migrated into China’s so-called “mainstream” media (meaning Party-controlled media), including central-level media like the People’s Daily.

David Bandurski

CMP Director

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